Usually the great dining room sat empty, though it never dared to gather dust. But at the Doctor’s request, Ace and Benny had spent the morning drawing aside the great velvet curtains, moving the chairs out of the way and hauling the lengthy table to the side of the room. They hadn’t asked why, and it did not seem to have occurred to the Doctor to volunteer the information. But by noon it became clear that something was afoot when a variety of different aliens began to arrive. Bannermen, Tzun, Sontarans, Chelonians, Slitheen, Earth Reptiles, Martians. It was like a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream. Was he throwing a party? “It’s not his birthday, is it?” smirked Ace, but as Benny caught her eye it was clear that both women were a little unsettled. If it was a party, the catering was mediocre, and once the Sontaran had had at it, non-existent.
The Doctor breezed in. “Ah, good, good. Arrange as many chairs as you can find facing the table, please.” Benny and Ace found some fold-away plastic chairs in the cellar, several thousand in fact. Before long everyone was seated. Some aliens began conversing quietly, others eyed their neighbours with culinary relish, others ditched protocol entirely and started poking other species and inviting them outside. Just as it was starting to get nasty, the Doctor came back, with what looked like several paintings under his arm. He arranged them across the table, before taking up position behind it, removing a gavel from his jacket pocket and clearing his throat theatrically.
“Now,” he said, “welcome to Allen Road, ladies, gentlemen, androgynes, epicenes, gestalts and fangirls. The first item is this beautiful depiction of Tannhauser Gate. Payment shall be in Kardukian Xs. Shall we start the bidding at 50X?”
* * *
As they were clearing up, Benny took the Doctor to one side. “To save time, imagine we’ve just have the argument where you don’t want to explain anything but I insist, and that I won.”
“They are beautiful, aren’t they?”
“I’ve never seen them before.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well… they feel more familiar than they did when you first brought them out. Is that significant, or shall I go get myself a straight jacket?”
“Carlos St Martin was a 23rd century artist. Worked feverishly his whole life. Documented the remarkable events around him. Died penniless in a condemned building with those canvases hiding in the back of a wardrobe. Before anyone could discover them, subsidence and a landslide brought that side of the house down. So much beauty, under so much rubble.”
“So you nipped in in the nick of time and rescued them? Shall we also skim over the part where I accuse you of interfering and call you names?”
“You know, there are countless millions of artists throughout human history whose work passes away unnoticed. I thought… well, call it a gesture. A thank you to the universe. And I’ve worked through all the ramifications of this, they’re all quite benign.”
“There’s just one thing that I don’t understand,” said Benny.
“Oh, you don’t feel like skipping that part, this time?” said the Doctor with a twinkle in his eye.
“Ha ha. If the artist and his work were unknown, how did you persuade all those… people to come and bid?”
“Oh, that was easy. I did exactly what Charles Saatchi does. I claimed I bought them for a huge amount of money and called them art.”
* * *
The paintings began to feel ever more familiar to Benny over the next few hours as the timelines settled back down. Eventually she could even vaguely remember going on a gallery tour when she was a child, seeing some of them collected together by a rich 25th century connoisseur.
The Doctor had kept one, and hung it in the hallway. The vibrant brushstrokes seemed almost alive, kinetic. So much energy, captured for eternity. And here it was, centuries before it would be painted. Three hundred years before it would be worthless, four hundred before it would be priceless. Benny couldn’t help but shiver, the way she always felt when she suspected that some rearrangement of memories was going on inside her head without her permission. All in all, it was probably for the best that the Doctor’s great powers were under the control of such a whimsical mind.
* * *
Ace poked her head round the door to the kitchen and saw Benny frowning at the painting in contemplation. She guessed what Benny was thinking, as it was probably what she’d been thinking herself. “Wine?” she said.
“Wine,” said Benny.
“Wine!” said the Doctor, coming up the stairs from the cellar waving a bottle. “Do you know that this vintage was buried under the floorboards of a 17th century French courtier? He was hoarding them, but was unexpectedly poisoned by a rival. Then the chateau burned down-“
“Get a corkscrew, before I throttle you,” said Benny, but the Doctor just grinned.